What would you have done at Penn State?

Scott Huler in Scientific American writes about why witnesses don't report abuse when they witness it:


You and I – and every single other decent person on the planet who has heard about the Penn State abuse allegations – are having the same revenge fantasy. Or, I don’t know, call it a Guardian Angel fantasy. We would have run into the shower and wrapped the kid in a towel; we would have grabbed a bat and whacked the coach; we would have blown our trusty whistle and dialed 911 while simultaneously pulling the fire alarm and screaming “Stop!”

Every radio sports jock on the dial has said the same thing: “You just can’t see something like that happening and walk away. You just can’t!”

Except the grand jury testimony shows – well, yes you can. People do. People did. People saw unspeakable things happening, and instead of putting on their superhero costumes and running to the rescue they … hesitated. They hoped it would stop. They walked away, and then thought better of that and called their bosses. And you know you would have done better, right?


Actually no. Studies show that people most likely will not report it.
That doesn’t make them acceptable or okay – let’s get that out of the way: if you see a rape, act to stop it. You should – as the sports jocks say, you must. The thing is, we so commonly don’t. I went looking for the science of why.

I can’t say I ever found it, which makes this a perfect blog post: if you do know of specific experiments about this, post them below. I’m aching to follow up.

But the psychologists with whom I spoke showed unanimity: this is who we are, and acting surprised by it doesn’t make it less so. The science they did cite was all of it familiar to you. Jeffery Braden, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and dean of its College of Humanities and Social Sciences, cited the famous Stanley Milgram experiments, during which 65 percent of subjects proved willing to deliver shocks causing unspeakable punishment to “learners,” research confederates who in reality experienced no shock or pain. The point, he said, is that, “you ask people on the street, would you do this? Everyone will say, ‘No, I would never do that.’ But the research shows that a majority would.”

The experiments measured response to authority, and as many have pointed out, the indicted coach had a high degree of power in the Penn State football program, making the witnesses feel coerced to accept any behavior by those in authority. “Those kind of influences,” Braden says, “also operate in shaping people’s behavior in ways that people often are literally unaware of.”


New York Times writer, David Brooks, comments on how people actually react when confronted with evil and believes we need to acknowledge that evil and sin exist in all of us:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

Some people simply can’t process the horror in front of them....

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.


WHYY in Philadelphia discusses this subject on Voices in the Family. The podcast is here.

Comments (2)

When I took first aid training my trainer said that more than any first aid skills, the most important thing to learn was to be the person who steps forward during an emergency and makes a decision. You can have all of the skills in the world but without being taught how to step forward rather than fade back in a crisis those skills will be of no use.

Kristin Fontaine

Fifteen years ago as a parish Sunday School director,I attended one of the early iterations of child sexual abuse prevention training offered in my former diocese and was shocked and angry that we were not offered any advice or guidance on how to report abuse--no number for Child Protective Service nor even directed to 911.

Clearly from Scott Huler's description, everyone involved in child and youth programs should examine how we see our duty to the well-being of children. The church should help out by making that part of required training--teaching people to have the moral courage to be "the person who steps forward."
--Gretchen Donart

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